What the gospel of innovation gets wrong

Roundup
tags: business, innovation



Jill Lepore, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2005. Lepore received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995. Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University.

...Clayton M. Christensen was interested in why companies fail. In his 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” he argued that, very often, it isn’t because their executives made bad decisions but because they made good decisions, the same kind of good decisions that had made those companies successful for decades. (The “innovator’s dilemma” is that “doing the right thing is the wrong thing.”) As Christensen saw it, the problem was the velocity of history, and it wasn’t so much a problem as a missed opportunity, like a plane that takes off without you, except that you didn’t even know there was a plane, and had wandered onto the airfield, which you thought was a meadow, and the plane ran you over during takeoff. Manufacturers of mainframe computers made good decisions about making and selling mainframe computers and devising important refinements to them in their R. & D. departments—“sustaining innovations,” Christensen called them—but, busy pleasing their mainframe customers, one tinker at a time, they missed what an entirely untapped customer wanted, personal computers, the market for which was created by what Christensen called “disruptive innovation”: the selling of a cheaper, poorer-quality product that initially reaches less profitable customers but eventually takes over and devours an entire industry.

Ever since “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: “The degree is in disruption,” the university announced. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” the venture capitalist Josh Linkner warns in a new book, “The Road to Reinvention,” in which he argues that “fickle consumer trends, friction-free markets, and political unrest,” along with “dizzying speed, exponential complexity, and mind-numbing technology advances,” mean that the time has come to panic as you’ve never panicked before. Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, who blog for Forbes, insist that we have entered a new and even scarier stage: “big bang disruption.” “This isn’t disruptive innovation,” they warn. “It’s devastating innovation.”

Things you own or use that are now considered to be the product of disruptive innovation include your smartphone and many of its apps, which have disrupted businesses from travel agencies and record stores to mapmaking and taxi dispatch. Much more disruption, we are told, lies ahead. Christensen has co-written books urging disruptive innovation in higher education (“The Innovative University”), public schools (“Disrupting Class”), and health care (“The Innovator’s Prescription”). His acolytes and imitators, including no small number of hucksters, have called for the disruption of more or less everything else. If the company you work for has a chief innovation officer, it’s because of the long arm of “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” If your city’s public-school district has adopted an Innovation Agenda, which has disrupted the education of every kid in the city, you live in the shadow of “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” If you saw the episode of the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley” in which the characters attend a conference called TechCrunch Disrupt 2014 (which is a real thing), and a guy from the stage, a Paul Rudd look-alike, shouts, “Let me hear it, DISSS-RUPPTTT!,” you have heard the voice of Clay Christensen, echoing across the valley...




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